“The drums they roll, upon my soul, for that’s the way we go,” runs the chorus in a Harrigan and Hart song from 1874. “Forty miles a day on beans and hay in the Regular Army O!” The last three words of that lyric aptly title Douglas C. McChristian’s remarkable work capturing the lot of soldiers posted to the West after the Civil War. At once panoramic and intimate, Regular Army O! uses the testimony of enlisted soldiers—drawn from more than 350 diaries, letters, and memoirs—to create a vivid picture of life in an evolving army on the western frontier.
After the volunteer troops that had garrisoned western forts and camps during the Civil War were withdrawn in 1865, the regular army replaced them. In actions involving American Indians between 1866 and 1891, 875 of these soldiers were killed, mainly in minor skirmishes, while many more died of disease, accident, or effects of the natural environment. What induced these men to enlist for five years and to embrace the grim prospect of combat is one of the enduring questions this book explores.
Going well beyond Don Rickey Jr.’s classic work Forty Miles a Day on Beans and Hay (1963), McChristian plumbs the regulars’ accounts for frank descriptions of their training to be soldiers; their daily routines, including what they ate, how they kept clean, and what they did for amusement; the reasons a disproportionate number occasionally deserted, while black soldiers did so only rarely; how the men prepared for field service; and how the majority who survived mustered out.
In this richly drawn, uniquely authentic view, men black and white, veteran and tenderfoot, fill in the details of the frontier soldier’s experience, giving voice to history in the making.
“This monumental study is the most complete rendering of the topic I have ever seen. With superb scholarship, Douglas McChristian provides in-depth knowledge on virtually every page. As one of the finest narrative writers working today, he writes entertainingly with subtle wit that can be hilarious, yet he concludes with all appropriate gravity that soldiers of the period, a racially and ethnically diverse lot, were competent overall and performed their duties earnestly and faithfully. McChristian knows his subject like no one else.”—Jerome A. Greene, author of American Carnage: Wounded Knee, 1890
"Drawn from more than 350 diaries, reminiscences, and narratives preserved in libraries and archives far and wide, Doug McChristian’s thoughtful narrative is a revealing and deserved homage to a remarkable class of ordinary men, soldiers barely known beyond their time but rightly remembered for their grit, steadfastness, and unfailing honor in a difficult and challenging time. This is a smart, richly rewarding book."—Paul L. Hedren, author of Powder River: Disastrous Opening of the Great Sioux War